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NEWS | Nov. 29, 2010

Guard leaders hope efficiencies will extend border role

By Lisa Daniel American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, - National Guard soldiers and airmen are making a big difference to civilian law enforcement officers working along the U.S. southwest border, and officials hope smart fiscal oversight will allow them to stay through the spring, a National Guard Bureau official said.

Homeland Security Department officials have told military leaders at the Pentagon that they are "very impressed" with the support from 1,195 soldiers and airmen deployed to the border to help DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Protection agents, Army Maj. Gen. Peter M. Aylward told American Forces Press Service in a Nov. 24 interview.

Representatives from Homeland Security, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the adjutants general for California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas discussed the Guard's contribution along the border and their deployment schedule during a Nov. 23 video teleconference, said Aylward, a special assistant to the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited California National Guard members in San Diego, along with her top military advisor, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Chuck Michel, on Oct. 18. Michel reported back that there is a high return on investment from President Barack Obama's directive in May to send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the border, Aylward said.

"He said they are very impressed with the attitude, professionalism, and great support the National Guard soldiers and airmen are providing in the San Diego sector, and across the board in the other states," he said. "The troops are doing great work, and it's greatly appreciated by our colleagues who are working to hire and train 1,000 agents."

The Guard members were asked to support the federal agents until the new hires are on board. The Guard reached capacity for the mission in October, and the directive calls for the drawdown of troops to begin in February. Government officials, though, are still working out the redeployment schedule, Aylward said. Redeployment is tied to the $135 million allocated to the mission, which is shared equally between the Homeland Security and Defense departments.

"How long we sustain the 1,200 folks on the border is part and parcel to the $135 million," he said. "The rampdown schedule is something the team is working through right now with the four states. The reality is we have had no change to the existing requirement and don't anticipate a change to that requirement." The challenge, he added, is how to execute that requirement within the budget allocation.

Because of the "great fiscal stewardship" of the four adjutants general, Aylward said, officials hope to extend the drawdown timeline into late spring, and perhaps into June. The adjutants general cut costs for the operation by using lower-level personnel and finding alternatives to work-related travel to stretch the appropriated funds, he said.

Defense and Homeland Security officials are reviewing the drawdown schedule to determine how long they can fund it, Aylward said.

The troops are working mostly in "entry identification teams" that operate in secret locations to provide oversight of the 2,000-mile border between the four states and Mexico, the general said.

"For us, it's really nothing new," he said. "They work in listening posts, observation posts, gathering information to give to law enforcement for prosecution."

The Guard members also work as criminal analysts in support of immigration and customs officials, Aylward said. "We do a great job with analytical work and intelligence around the globe, so this is a great fit for us," he said.

"This, frankly, is just another chapter in this initiative [to reduce transnational threats along the southwest border] that began even before DHS started, going back to 1993 with Customs and Border Protection," he added.

This year has seen an improvement along the border, with illegal immigration down 23 percent between January and August, Aylward noted. During the same time, drug seizures were up 15 percent and weapons seizures were up 30 percent. At the same time, drug violence has surged in Mexico, but little has spilled over to the U.S. states, he said.

"Our challenge is how to have rules that facilitate trade, tourism and commerce, but eliminate transnational threats and illegal activity," Aylward said. "We're part of those who are helping with those solutions by screening out the transnational threats."

The breakdown of Guard members along the border is 224 in California, 524 in Arizona, 72 in New Mexico, and 250 in Texas. Another 130 are working command and control, officials said.

Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Kelly Rose Ivahnenko said the National Guard teams help to fill gaps in surveillance coverage along the border, enhance interdiction efforts with analysis and technology such as infrared sensing devices and truck-mounted cameras, and provide agents with real-time information.

"National Guard troops serve as valuable partners and are a tremendous asset in bolstering our border security efforts, along with unprecedented resources in manpower, technology and infrastructure that have been allocated by this administration," Ivahnenko said.

As examples, Ivahnenko said, Guard members have assisted Border Patrol with 2,500 apprehensions and the seizure of nearly 3,000 pounds of marijuana in the Tucson, Ariz., sector. In Texas, Guard members have helped to secure 25 apprehensions and 200 pounds of marijuana in the El Paso sector and 430 apprehensions and 1,348 pounds of marijuana in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

California National Guardsmen have detected 1,046 illegal entries that resulted in arrests by Border Patrol agents, she said.